Coming off a trip to the 2011 Memorial Cup, veteran forward Max Reinhart (CGY) is off to a quick start as the Kootenay Ice have rocketed up the WHL standings with a 19-8-1-2 record. The team recently finished up a nine-game road trip where they went 6-3.
"I think everyone these past couple of weeks has kind of found chemistry on their lines," Reinhart said of the team’s early season success. "Right now we’re almost always good for a goal or two every period.
"We’re seeing it spread around a bit, too. In the past the first line kind of stacked up most of the scoring, but a lot of younger guys have stepped up right now and it’s paying off. This road trip for us has been absolutely incredible so far."
The Ice graduated key players like forward Cody Eakin (WAS) and defenseman Brayden McNabb (BUF) after last season, yet the organization still has a number of drafted juniors in the lineup this year. Along with Reinhart, forward Drew Czerwonka (EDM), defenseman Joey Leach (CGY) and goaltender Nathan Lieuwen (BUF) are other key leaders in Cranbrook this season.
Reinhart, now 19 years of age, was selected by the Calgary Flames in the third round, 64th overall, at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Through 27 games this season, he has scored 16 goals and 20 assists for 36 points and a plus-17 rating. He has chipped in on the power play with three goals and leads the team with three shorthanded tallies. Three of his goals have also been game-winners. Last season, Reinhart scored 34 goals and 45 assists in 71 regular season games.
"I thought Max really stepped up his game last season," said Kootenay assistant coach Todd Johnson. "A lot of our returning players learned how to win and how to play through hard times. Whether Max scored or didn’t score for us, he took care of the ice in our own end. But he was rewarded offensively and that has been the case this season as well. He’s tenacious. He’s just matured as a player. A lot of that has to do with the playoff success last year."
Reinhart was a key contributor last season in the Ice’s run through the WHL playoffs and Memorial Cup, collecting 27 points in 19 playoff games. Among the highlights, he says, was the opportunity to watch and learn from Eakin. After the 2011 World Junior Championship, near the WHL trade deadline last season, Eakin was acquired by Kootenay from the Swift Current Broncos.
"That was the pinnacle of my hockey career," Reinhart said of the league championship and Memorial Cup experiences, adding he played his first NHL pre-season game earlier this season as well. "Just the way our team came together. I don’t think I’ve been on a team before that was that close, from top to bottom.
"When Cody Eakin came in, right away he was pretty much everybody’s best friend, such a good team mate and hard worker. He was probably our best player and I’ve never played with a guy of that caliber, except maybe for Brayden McNabb. Just watching him everyday and seeing the amount of work he put in, that really worked for me. Cody was a great player and fun to watch, so this year you can really see that everyone is a lot more confident."
This season, Kootenay knew that late November and early December would be a telling stretch through the regular season schedule. The team has been ejected, so to speak, from the friendly confines of the Cranbrook Rec-Plex, as the city plays host to the Canada Cup Curling Championship. As a result of the scheduling conflict, the Ice were destined for a nine-game road trip. The team has responded to the challenge favorably, winning the first six straight roadies, including the team’s first ever five-game sweep of the road games played against each of the BC Division teams.
"This road trip has been absolutely unbelievable," Reinhart said.
A huge part of the Ice’s recent success can be attributed to not one, but two Reinharts. Sam Reinhart, now 16, has been skating alongside Max and veteran Joe Antilla. The trio has been on a scoring binge of late, combining for 48 points in their last 10 games. Indeed, a very definite family affair is developing in Cranbrook. While Max established himself as a go-to-guy in the playoffs last season, the Ice had Sam along as a 15-year-old to travel with the team. He managed to get into a few games, but was used sparingly. That experience, in part, appears to be paying immediate dividends.
"He (Sam) came out really strong his first five games," Max said. "Then, well, I can’t really explain it, but it’s that 16-year-old’s first year thing where he maybe wasn’t really sure what to expect. But right now it’s so fun to watch him and I get to play with him night in and night out now. We’re such similar players, there’s that natural chemistry as brothers, but we just know where we’re going out there and where we want to pass it."
According to Johnson, the Reinharts caught fire at the beginning of the team’s road trip through the B.C. Division. The Ice won five straight games on that trip.
"When they were paired together in Vancouver, things really clicked for them that night," Johnson said. "That’s their hometown. Ever since, they’ve worked really well together. The chemistry is there. They play an awful lot together during the summer, I imagine all three of the brothers do. They read off each other very well.
WHL followers are also aware that a third Reinhart is skating in the league this season. Griffen, now 17, is ranked among the top five draft eligible defensemen in the WHL right now. He plays for the Edmonton Oil Kings. If bloodlines are of significance, the three are sons of prolific NHL defenseman Paul Reinhart, who collected 637 points in 730 career games.
Max, who checks in at 6’1 and 180 pounds, is entirely motivated to earn a spot on the Flames roster, one of the two organizations his father played for over the course of his 11-year professional career.
"Obviously the overall strength it takes to play in that league and the commitment they put in everyday," Max said when asked what he learned while attending Flames training camp. "It’s not just about getting on the ice and having a bit of fun and then heading home. The guys work out before and after practice and they put a lot of time and effort into it. They’re getting paid a lot of money to do it, but just from being there it gives you a taste of that lifestyle and I hope to be there one day."
In the short term, Max Reinhart has some very important business to attend to. He’s been named to the Hockey Canada Selection Camp roster, the next step toward an appearance with Team Canada at the 2012 World Junior Championship in Alberta. He’s one of 16 WHL players to have received an invitation.
"A lot of excitement there, for sure," Reinhart said." I had a chance to play in the Super Series, so when that happened, I knew there was a chance they were at least looking at me. I made it a goal of mine to really try and make myself a shoe-in for this tryout, because anything can happen at the tryout. My focus right now is on winning games here (for Kootenay), and at the same time I’d like to perform well and bring my "A" game to the camp."
The coaching staff has noticed some increased excitement from Reinhart since he received the invitation.
"Yes, maybe not on the ice, but off the ice for sure," Johnson said. "It’s something that weighs heavily on the minds of some players, but now Max seems more relaxed about it all. It’s a goal he wanted to achieve during the first half of the season, but now he’s got a tougher job to do in trying to make the team. But give him credit, he works hard on and off the ice and he’s got a great attitude."